Reading Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick was at times like reading poetry. The quality of the writing is meditative and episodic. There is no beginning-middle-end plot. The book is what you might find yourself thinking of if you couldn’t sleep at night. Not the worried about this and that stuff but the, I wonder how so-and-so is doing? And whatever happened to–? And I remember when–.
The novel is about a lot things but for me what stood out were the ideas about memory, truth, and fiction. These Hardwick sets up in the second paragraph of the book:
If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember. Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself. You can talk it down like a can from a shelf. Perhaps. One can would be marked Rand Avenue in Kentucky and some would recall the address at least as true. Inside the can are the blackening porches of winter, the gas grates, the swarm.
Statements of certainty followed by words that throw everything into doubt. Nothing is sure in this book. The narrator is named Elizabeth and her life is like the author’s but it isn’t. Elizabeth is writing about her life in letters to someone named M but the novel is not epistolary. She is telling about her life but she isn’t, instead giving us stories about maids and Billie Holiday and other people.
Everywhere sprinkled throughout the book are references to memory and truth and fiction and how little or how much we know about ourselves and each other. At one point she writes, “Marie, I do not understand your fear of disillusion. Don’t you see that revision can enter the heart like a new love?” And in the end:
Sometimes I resent the glossary, the concordance of truth, many have about my real life, have like an extra pair of spectacles. I mean that such fact is to me a hinderance to memory.
Facts getting in the way of memory, in the way of revising the past to suit your memories. If others know the facts it gets in the way of your revisions.
But the narrator isn’t against everyone knowing the truth. There are some, the ones she cares for, who she “love[s] to be known by” and is always talking to them either by phone or letter. I can’t help but wonder, however, with Elizabeth’s penchant for revision, for making her life a fiction, how well she knows herself and how well she can really be known by anyone. Perhaps it is not the facts that matter but what one does with the facts? The story one makes out of them can be more revealing than the reality.
For such a short book there is much to think about. This is a book that would benefit from a re-reading. Like poetry, it will only get richer with familiarity.